By Tom Neale, 3/4/2010


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Snorkeling in a mangrove swamp awes, frightens and inspires. We stay in the channels, of course, for to get into the root system could be dangerous. The experience changes from moment to moment--as does the water. Usually it’s very warm, but cold streams and eddies mysteriously reach out from the roots. It keeps you alert. This is good because here is where sharks breed. We’ve seen the baby sharks, and the big ones.

Bimini Mangrove Roots are home to many creatures

Here is also where fish, crustaceans, birds, alligators, conch and many other creatures hang out and breed. It’s a place of safety and protection from many forms of life and death, although life and death occur regularly here. Once kayaking in a mangrove swamp we were followed by a huge hammerhead. We sped to the shallows, knowing that it could speed faster than us and have us if it wanted. Even in the shallows we knew we weren’t very safe, because not long before we’d seen a very large hammerhead in another mangrove swamp, in a shallow sandy bottomed basin surrounded by the forest. It ravenously foraged in water that was so shallow that the upper two thirds of the shark’s body were in the air. But it was in full control, able to grab anything it wanted and drag it back to deeper water. The shark that had been interested in our yellow kayaks moved on, and we let the current whisk us out to deeper water where Chez Nous lay anchored. Perhaps more ferocious but not as deadly, the no-see-ums which swarm from mangroves can “eat you alive, Mon” while they make you itch like you’ve never itched before.

But, as I said earlier, I see mangroves more as protection than as threatening. For example, we’ve seen many baby conch thriving deep in some swamps, hidden from view. At times in the Bahamas we’ve seen commercial harvesters scoop up immature conch. At the right times and in the right places there are hundreds of them in a relatively small area and in shallow open water out on the Bahamas banks. They’re easy to pick up, clean and cut up so that, in theory, no one knows. This decimates the population because they haven’t had a chance to reproduce. So at times when we’ve seen this going on, we’ve gathered them and carefully hidden them far up into the mangrove. And years later, we’ve snorkeled in that mangrove and seen hundreds of now mature conch where there were none before.

Mangroves in Bimini Protect the Shore

The conch is only one of thousands of life forms that mangrove nurtures and protects. You realize this as you snorkel in the swamp, wondering what’s looking out at you from the maze of mangrove roots. You know you’re in a mysterious world. It’s alien, but it’s alluring and beautiful.

Mangrove protects people too. The roots and plants trap soil in tidal flats, holding it to the land, preventing islands and shorelines from washing out into the sea. They actually help land to grow out into the sea. The buttonwood tree grows where mangroves previously rooted in the shallows. It’s not uncommon to find stands of buttonwood far from the water. They tell us that here used to lie a mangrove swamp at the water’s edge.

Mangrove swamps don’t just help land to form, they help to keep the sea from ravaging land that already exists. The interlocking root systems protect against waves from storms as large as hurricanes and even against tsunamis. In our travels on the water over many years we’ve seen untold stands of mangrove swamp in areas that have been savaged by huge storms. The swamps are still there, as is, usually, the land behind them.

It’s common knowledge among cruising boaters that a mangrove swamp can be the safest place—perhaps the only safe place—in a hurricane. This is testimony to the tenaciousness of the mangrove’s roots and limbs and to its very ecosystem. We knew someone who took his boat up in the mangrove swamps near Angelfish Creek north of Key Largo for Hurricane Andrew. Andrew was one of the worst hurricanes we’ve seen. It was a tight monster with incredible winds, like a giant tornado. Its path wasn’t wide, but it destroyed everything there, including much of Chub Cay and Cat Cay in the Bahamas and then Homestead just south of Miami. We visited all three of those places soon after, and it looked and felt like a huge nuclear explosion had just occurred.

Tom’s Tips About Mangroves and No-see-ums

1. No-see-ums thrive in mangrove. They are tiny gnats that are ferocious in their desire to bite you and make you itch.

2. If you are near mangrove and there is little or no wind, or if you anchor downwind from mangrove, you are likely to be attacked by these bugs.

Click Here for More Tips

Our friend, not really knowing what Andrew’s intensity would be and the exact path it would take, followed traditional wisdom and went to the swamp. He’s a tough guy and he has a tough boat. They both survived with only moderate damage. But if you ask him about it he’ll say “Never, never again.” He’ll also say, “Don’t even think about it.” There’s no way to describe the hell of a hurricane. But mangrove swamps survive them most of the time, helping to protect land, villages and people behind them.

There are many different species of mangrove, and they grow around the world, but usually no more than 30 degrees north or south of the equator. Some are very tall trees, some are the low lying gnarly type that we’re more accustomed to seeing on this continent and in the Bahamas. But they share an ability to live where land and water meet. They can make fresh water for themselves from even very salty sea water. Some have roots that grow down, like the red mangrove; some, like the black mangrove, have roots that send up “snorkels” (pneumatophores) to help them breathe. Some have seeds which actually sprout while still up in the safety of the trees, and then drop to the floor of the swamp, to grow there or to float on the currents to grow farther away.

Passage in Bimini Mangrove Swamp

They help us keep our land. They build out our land. They protect us. They give us food. They consume huge amounts of carbon dioxide, something which people on all sides of environmental debates agree that we have too much of. They give us indescribable beauty, particularly if we’re lucky enough to be on a boat and able to access them in a way that’s good for them.

On the north end of Bimini there’s an incredible mangrove swamp. But I’m told that a golf course is planned, which will take out much of the mangrove. I wonder what the first hurricane strike will do to that golf course. In other areas of the world huge ponds are cut out of mangrove swamps for the sole purpose of breeding shrimp. Shrimp are an important cash crop there, because we eat so many of them here, as do others. These are but two examples. In many other places the march of progress is taking out the mangrove. It’s true that we can’t have it all. As we have more and more people we have more and more encroachment upon natural uncivilized areas. But mangrove are not only a unique thriving beautiful invaluable ecosystem, they help keep the very shoreline in place. It seems we’d at least figure that out.

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